Sonja Ahlers: A Look at Our Selves

Sonja Ahlers: A Look at Our Selves

Cover art for The Selves. Click through for sample pages from the publisher's website

Veteran underground artist Sonja Ahlers has been profiled many times—you can read excellent pieces about her in Taddle Creek and Broken Pencil. You can also join the thousands who have purchased the craft bunnies that she creates from reclaimed angora or her other collage artworks.

Her early books, Temper Temper (1998) and Fatal Distraction (2004), consist of inventive collages constructed from found-and-drawn, cut-and-paste images that form into slowly emerging narratives. This year she is releasing a full colour work, The Selves, a coming-of-age narrative using the same technique blended with original drawings and writings. The book, published by Drawn & Quarterly, reads like a diary from our collective subconscious—images of Princess Diana, Strawberry Shortcake, a young Angelina Jolie, and found art from story books tell a dark tale about growing up as a girl in the shadow of countless mass-media representations of femininity. The book’s non-traditional low-fi look will challenge some readers, but the work builds with a kind of slow burn from which emerges a richly rewarding commentary delivered with unusually dark immediacy.

I spoke with Ahlers last week about the difference between art and craft, about media, and about The Selves.

Dave Howard: You’ve been on the arts scene for a fairly long time. When did you start your style of cut-and-paste associative narrative?

Sonja Ahlers: Well I started doing them in the zines, in the early 1990s, way back then. Temper Temper is an amalgamation of earlier work, about five years of work, so I had been doing it for a while, though very obscurely.

Howard: You’ve been able to get by, as far as I understand, on the bunnies that you hand sew from angora?

Ahlers: Well, I stopped resisting them. I didn’t want that, I never wanted the bunnies to take over my life. It’s just taken me years to…figure this out, to just stop resisting. [laughs] I mean craft does support my art—if I let it. It’s like a day job, basically. People do kind of go crazy for the bunnies, it’s a whole other monster I have to deal with.

Howard: Is it sort of like another identity you have, another online identity?

Ahlers: Yeah, it’s sort of like a split personality or something.

Howard: Are people who are buying your bunnies aware of your other work?

Ahlers: Some of them are. I’m afraid some people who love the bunnies would be disturbed by my art. Especially earlier work. I don’t know, I’ve tried to keep them separate for a long time, but it’s okay now. It’s under control.

Howard: Do you make a distinction between art and craft in that way? What kind of distinction would you make between the two?

Ahlers: There’s definitely a distinction. It’s interesting because in North American culture there is a definite distinction between craft and art, while I find in Japan, for instance, there’s not such a disconnect. I identify more with that culture than with North American culture. Craft is accepted as an art form in Japan and I feel I’ve had more success with the work that I do in Japan than I have had in North America. The work I do is coming more from a place of emotional intelligence—it’s hard to explain. It’s sort of an intuitive response that the viewer has. I feel a strong connection with Japan.

Howard: Are you talking about the angora bunnies or your work in general?

Ahlers: In general. The Japanese don’t see such a disconnect between all of the stuff I do; they can see it as a package, whereas here it’s like I have two identities. I think, here, I’ve tried to hide the fact that I craft items because it’s so looked down upon, and that frustrates me. Because it’s feminine work, and feminine work isn’t heralded in the art community. So I’m frustrated by that. Things are changing, I know, but I’ve been doing this for a long while. Just persevere.

Howard: I’ve seen before you mention the distinction between masculine work and feminine work, masculine art and feminine art.

Ahlers: Yes.

Howard: Would you characterize any of the work that you’ve done as “masculine art” or is masculine art strictly applied to men?

Ahlers: No, when I say masculine/feminine, I don’t mean male/female or men/women. I like to think of it as a yin/yang model, which is comprised of male and female characteristics that operate as a whole. I think everyone is part male, part female, and the goal is to balance that out in the individual. I’m just more interested in seeing feminine work. For me, that’s more organic, more intuitive, there’s less structure.

Howard: It’s associative?

Ahlers: [pause] Yes. I just think that there’s a real imbalance, on a global scale. I think of it as a teeter-totter, between the masculine and the feminine. And I think a lot about the ying/yang model for sure. I just would like to see it balanced out sometimes.

Howard: Where would you place the media’s role in that? Your book, The Selves, includes occasional magazine ads within the meat of the work, images from other print media. I’m interested in how you would characterize advertising: is it more of a masculine or feminine kind of art?

Ahlers: Advertising? Advertising in general?

Howard: Yes. I’m thinking that advertising is an associative, non-linear, kind of interface with society. I’m wondering, because your book seems like it’s made of intersecting media, with media images rearranged to give them different meanings, new associations, how you would place those images in your masculine/feminine view?

Ahlers: It’s funny, sometimes I joke to myself, “Why do I make art, I should have gone into advertising?” It’s funny, a friend and I were walking down the street the other day and we saw a poster for a record store, and I said, “Oh, look, they’ve copied Christian Marclay,” a visual artist I love. I don’t know if you know his work, he’s been copied over and over; he did a lot of cassette work, with cassette tapes in the early ’90s, he’s amazing. He also did a series where he worked with album covers. From a Tina Turner album he took her legs and then he took a Blind Faith album with a pre-pubescent girl holding a model plane and he pieced the album parts together to make a body. It’s really amazing, it’s collage work with album art. But I saw an ad in a record store, they had completely copied that idea, and my friend and I joked that basically artists are kept around as sort of think tank that advertisers can dip into. Because that’s what they’re doing, they’re out looking for ideas all the time, ideas to copy or steal in order to sell product. It’s such a crazy form, it’s all about consumerism. It’s almost the evil version of being an artist: there’s the artist and then there’s the advertiser. The artist always has the original idea.

It’s interesting what you’re telling me about how much advertising you’re seeing in my book, because that was subconscious. I deeply considered every single image in this book, and I spent a really long time on it. But I do feel I worked on the material for so long that I created subliminal messages of my own—my own form of advertising. [laughs] But it’s advertising for issues that are near and dear to me.

Howard: Your own personal mythology?

Ahlers: Yes. Again, for this collective biography, which is how I see it. And a lot of the images in the book—like the images of the book cover for Sybil, or the girls from the Led Zeppelin [Houses of the Holy] album—that’s stuff that I’ve looked at my whole life. I honestly feel like I’ve stared at it forever, and that it’s been shoved down my…. A lot of advertising is shoving something down your throat, and the only way you can take control is to appropriate it, filter it, and just kind of get it out of your psyche—you know what I mean? Like a filter system. I know a lot other people who have been disturbed by these same images, like the Sybil book cover.

Howard: I liked what you did with it in your work, how you’ve cut out the shattered images of the original book art and pieced them together to make the face whole again while the text now looks disjointed.

Ahlers: Yeah, I took the actual cover and cut each strip again and tried to piece her back together. You totally got it, thank you, not many people pick that up. Some people are “I’ve never heard of that book” or “I’ve never seen that cover before” and I’ve been, like, terrified or terrorized by that image my whole life, it’s so disturbing.

Howard: Your work feels like an extended collage that has a narrative. There is a narrative there, right? I’m not making that up am I?

Book cover art for 1973 release of 'Sybil'

Ahlers: The character actually grows up throughout the book, so, yes, there is a narrative. It’s like “The Selves” [in the movie version of Sybil], there’s a cast of characters [who make up the main character].

Also like the movie Palindromes, a Todd Solondz movie that came out in 2004. He used six or seven different actors to play one character throughout the movie, each of a different race, age, and gender, all playing a 13-year-old girl. I was sort of rifting on that idea, using different characters to play the same person, who’s literally growing up throughout the book. And I’m sort of touching on snippets and fragments of things that might happen along the way. Like listening to rock music and using Princess Diana meeting Loverboy at Expo 86 to illustrate that. And then there’s the Degrassi references.

Howard: When I first read it, I read it pretty quickly, and I found I had a very strong emotional reaction.

Ahlers: You know, I do this work and I feel like I’m doing voodoo, especially when I’m “in the zone.” Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing but I also exercise control-freak tendencies over the material (masculine) while leaving an element up to chance (feminine).

Howard: Your process is intuitive? It’s trusting yourself?

Ahlers: I make work for the viewer, it’s for an audience, it’s not personal indulgence. That’s what art should be, it should have a purpose and people should have an emotional response to it. That’s the only reason I’m doing this, swear to god. It’s social work. I do make other work for myself, but I don’t show that work. With The Selves, this was something I pounded out. I spent a very long time on this.

Howard: Listening to yourself while you were putting these associated images together?

Ahlers: Yes, forcing me to trust myself which is sometimes impossible. It’s an exercise for living in the world and trusting the process of life. That is another face of what art making is to me.